BRIEFLY NOTED: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

I have no idea why it took me nine years to get around to reading Karen Abbott’s detailed, well-written, and a dripping-with-atmosphere book about Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970). I enjoyed the book, partly because of the nostalgia of vaudeville and burlesque that I heard about years ago when watching The Steve Allen Show, Johnny Carson, and other programs that often featured older performers who got their start in the older art forms. The use of the word “art” here depends on who you’re talking to.

There’s an old theater I know that once featured Vaudeville acts that’s being restored and serves its community by using its facilities for regional theater groups. On several occasions, I’ve asked the management why their website says absolutely nothing about the Vaudeville performers who appeared there during its heyday.  They said the old posters and records would require a grant to compile. Get one, I said. Don’t let this slide because without displaying what happened there in the old days, your theater is without most of its heart.

If you saw the 1962 film “Gypsy” (that grew out of Gypsy’s 1957 autobiography), you were exposed to a cleaned-up version of the real story. I liked the movie, especially the performances by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. But compared to Abbott’s book, the movie is a mere hint about the realities of the heart and soul of Vaudeville and burlesque–and the hopefuls, stars, gangsters (and other denizens) who made the system work.

From the Publisher:

America was flying high in the Roaring Twenties. Then, almost overnight, the Great Depression brought it crashing down. When the dust settled, people were primed for a star who could distract them from reality. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a gift for delivering exactly what America needed. With her superb narrative skills and eye for detail, Karen Abbott brings to life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intense triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who literally killed to get her daughters on the stage. Weaving in the compelling saga of the Minskys—four scrappy brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque and transform the entertainment landscape—Karen Abbott creates a rich account of a legend whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.

From the Book:

“Mother was,’ June thought, ‘a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.’ Her broken edges cut her daughters in ways both emotional and physical, and only sharpened with age.”

“And truth is malleable, something to be bent or stretched or made to disappear, but direct lies always find the path back to the one who tells them.”

“Later, the sisters would remember things differently, as sisters do, old grudges and misunderstandings refracting each memory, bending them in opposite directions.”

From the Critics:

American Rose is a fitting tribute to an amazing woman, telling her story beautifully while revealing as much about post-Depression America as it does about celebrity life. It’s cultural history at its best.”—Rebecca Skloot, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Abbott creates a brainy striptease similar to the one her subject may have performed.”—Newsday

“With staggeringly in-depth research . . . Abbott composes a story wrought with personal drama and insight into a dark era in American history. . . . The story is as beguiling as it is timeless.”—Elle

The book takes you into the heart of things Vaudeville and burlesque, and we find that it’s not as pure as we wish it were, nor as kind. But the grit is a large part of the story, one worth telling and one worth reading about and ya gotta love it in spite of its worst sins, for it was a heady time, the roaring twenties when everyone was pushing the envelope.


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Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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Discovering ‘The G-String Murders’ by Gypsy Rose Lee

The tall bookshelf on the righthand side of our living room fireplace was either magic or was monitored by my parents who put books there–from some hidden trove–during my junior high and high school years when I was deemed ready to read them.

One of these was a small book in a plain brown dustjacket written for young men who were old enough to learn how sex was accomplished. I read it in my bedroom and then put it back on the tall bookshelf from which it soon disappeared until it was time for the middle brother to read it. I have no idea what the book was called or when it was published. In general, the words and illustrations were more accurate and of higher literary quality (less profane, too) than the information written on the restroom stalls in the men’s bathrooms at school.

I still have the second book that appeared about the time the movie “Gypsy” was released in 1962. When I didn’t return it to the tall shelf, nobody mentioned it. It appeared after the book about how to have sex, though I didn’t need a set of instructions to enjoy Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1941 detective novel The G-String Murders. I liked the book. I still do. And I think she wrote it or wrote most of it in spite of the fact various people think somebody else wrote it.

It’s set in a burlesque theater with a narrator named Gypsy. According to teacher and scholar Maria DiBattista, “The book is still readable today for its brisk, sometimes witty, and unapologetically randy account of the personal and professional jealousies, the routines and props (the grouch bags, pickle persuaders, and, of course, G-strings), even the substandard plumbing common to a life in burlesque.” 

Letters that Lee sent to Simon and Schuster while she was writing the novel tend to prove that she wrote it rather than W. H. Auden, Craig Rice, and other suspects. The book is still in print.

Amazon Description

Lee – Wikipedia Photo

“Narrating the twisted tale of a backstage double murder, Gypsy Rose Lee, the queen of the striptease, provides a tantalizing glimpse into the underworld of burlesque theatre in 1940s America. When one performer is found strangled with a G-string, no one is above suspicion. A host of clueless coppers face off against the theatre’s tough-talking guys and dolls, and when a second murder occurs, it’s clear that Gypsy and her cohorts will have to crack the case themselves. A dazzling and wisecracking murder mystery noir that was the basis of the 1943 film Lady of Burlesque, starring Barbara Stanwyck.”

In part, I think it’s the movie (inspired by her memoir Gypsy: A Memoir) “Gypsy” with Natalie Wood and this novel that keep Gypsy Rose Lee’s name from fading out of the public’s consciousness. After all, burlesque is long gone. She lived between 1911 and 1970. In her later years, she appeared here and there including “Hollywood Squares.” In 2010, novelist Karen Abbott released the novel “American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” to high acclaim.

So, Gypsy is still here one way or another, and that first edition copy isn’t leaving my shelf.


Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing


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